The profitability and sustainability of livestock farming is under severe pressure. Fortunately, top farmer Mecki Schneider has excellent advice for extensive cattle and sheep farmers. This is the first delivery in a three part series on ten tips for the restoration of livestock farming.
Livestock farming across Southern Africa is struggling due to sporadic droughts, rising production costs and fluctuating livestock prices.
Mecki Schneider, a cattle farmer from Grootfontein in Namibia, who retired last year as chairman of the country’s Livestock Producers’ Organisation (LPO), says production costs for cattle and sheep farming in Namibia have jumped 163% in the past 10 years. At the same time, revenue from cattle farming increased by only 59% and that of sheep farming by 147%.
The huge gap between income and expenses means that over the past 10 years cattle farmers have had to annually farm 8% more profitably or operate more efficiently just to stay at the same profit levels. Sheep farmers had to increase their efficiency by 3% each year. A cattle farmer must therefore today be 80% more efficient than 10 years ago, which is not feasible in any business.
Graph 1 (cattle and sheep farming income and total expenses) and Graph 2 (cattle and sheep farming’s profit margins) are self-explanatory.
Mecki’s livestock farming business has been in existence for 103 years. He explained 10 strategies that cattle farmers can use to address the issue of declining profitability. “It is quite complex and depends on your personal circumstances. This approach has, however, evolved from a practical perspective and farmers need to give thorough, ongoing attention to a wide range of factors to get back on the road to profitability.
“It is like a stone wall – if you pull out a stone (or facet of farming) at the bottom, the entire wall may collapse.”
These are the ten strategies:
1. Grazing land
Natural grazing is the foundation that sustains herds. Therefore, the utilisation and ongoing monitoring of the condition of grazing land is essential. Satellite technology can be used to observe the condition of the lands from space and to measure the lands’ productivity over the long term.
Every two weeks, Mecki receives an updated satellite photo on the website www.namibiarangelands.com of the state of each camp. It shows the current condition compared to the average condition over the past 16 years.
Rainfall is accurately recorded. It is important to note the spread of the rainfall, in particular. The spread over months is often more important than the amount over a very short period.
Mecki says moisture conservation in grazing lands is extremely important in any dry environment, especially in Southern Africa, which regularly experiences drought. In addition, Namibia is regarded as the driest country, with the most erratic rainfall pattern, south of the Sahara Desert.
Farmers should avoid bare patches in their lands, because moisture evaporation in these patches is very high. They then become compacted, the soil gets very hot and any rain that falls will run away. “Although there is still no consensus on the amount of rain that Southern Africa will get in the future due to climate change, it is fairly certain that the temperature will rise by at least 4°C. For each degree that the temperature rises, the evaporation of moisture from the soil increases by 5%. In other words, evaporation will increase by 20%,” he says, emphasising the seriousness of the matter.
The solution lies in a long-term strategy to improve the vigour of veld grazing. This involves improving the coverage with perennial grasses, strengthening the root system, improving the coverage of bare soil and thus avoiding soil compaction, and the systematic combating of bush encroachment.
“Livestock farmers should fully utilize their land’s carrying capacity to survive in an environment where low profitability is a reality. If bush encroachment could be controlled and the veld improved, the carrying capacity of the lands would be sustainably increased,” says Mecki.
“Learn to live with less and to cope with irregular rainfall by following a more conservative approach to land utilisation.”
Mecki’s eight principles of good veld management are:
- Know your resource base (soil, plant composition and perennial grasses).
- Manage the efficient restoration and resting of lands, including the promotion of root development, especially in late summer.
- Manage the efficient utilisation of plants.
- Improve soil condition by using mulch and organic matter.
- Combat bush encroachment by selectively eradicating invasive shrubs.
- Plan ahead for droughts – an elaborate strategy is needed, such as timeously selling a certain portion of livestock or relocating them.
- Monitor the resource base continuously, especially at the end of the rainy season, but also over the decades.
- Plan infrastructure carefully.
Mecki follows a practical approach to veld utilisation. During the rainy season, he evaluates the veld in mid-February. If it’s dry, he sets his drought action-plan in motion.
In the second half of May he does a final evaluation of the condition of the veld to determine whether he will have enough grazing until the end of December. This includes his drought reserves, spare camps, 10% of each farm that is rested on a rotation basis, and areas that are lightly grazed. The quantity and quality of grass are both evaluated in each camp and then they get a point on a scale of 1 to 100 and are grazed accordingly.
- In our next delivery Mecki discuss: Profitable herds, keeping meticulous records, marketing, financial considerations, management of labour.